The Prado Museum in Madrid was one of the world’s first public art galleries when it was established in 1819. As the size and variety of its collection grew, it soon became recognised as one of the world’s greatest art museums and one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Today it is home to a permanent collection of around 8,000 drawings, 5,000 prints, 7500 paintings and 1,000 sculptures which are housed in a grand neoclassical building on Madrid’s Paseo del Prado.
The collection spans from the Middle Ages to the 19th century with a particular emphasis on Spanish, Italian and Flemish art. This comprehensive range allows visitors to embark on a chronological journey through the history of European art. For the first-time visitor, navigating through this vast collection can be a daunting task. For that reason we’ve put together this guide to the Museo del Pradowhich includes the Prado Museum highlights which should not be missed.
History of the Prado Museum
The Prado Madrid is divided into two buildings: the Villanueva building which is the older of the two; and the Casón del Buen Retiro. For a while the venue served as a headquarters for the cavalry when the Napoleonic troops were based in Madrid during the War of Independence. During the Spanish Civil War the museum’s collection was transferred several times. Many paintings and other priceless artefacts were moved to Valencia then to Girona and finally to Geneva in Switzerland. The collection was returned to Madrid and the Prado Museum during the Second World War where it has been ever since.
Tips For Visiting the Madrid Prado Museum
- If you’re planning on visiting the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia galleries as well as the Prado then buy a combined ticket for the three. You can get these at the entrance to each gallery.
- There are floor plans of the vast Museo Prado available at the entrance. It’s well worth planning your route through the museum before you enter.
- There are two entrances to the Prdo Museum. If you’d like to see the exhibits in chronological order take the Puerta de Goya entrance on c/Felipe IV. The other entrance is at Puerta de Murillo on Plaza de Murillo.
- There is a restaurant and café in the Prado museum so if you’re making a day of it there’s no need to leave the building.
- One thing to remember while touring is that the Prado is constantly under renovation and the pieces you’re looking for might not always be where you expect them to be. Don’t be afraid to flag down the museum staff and ask for directions!
Prado Museum Spanish Collections
The paintings of the Prado Museum’s collection are divided into collections based on country of origin and era. While other collections are excellent in terms of variety and fame, the Prado really shines with its collection of the Spanish schools of painting dating from 1100 to 1850.
Diego Velázquez Collection
Diego Velázquez, the king of Spain’s court painter, has an entire room devoted to some of his most important pieces. Directly off of the main gallery, you can find some of his most impressive works, like “The Drinkers,” “Jester Portraits,” and “The Surrender of Breda.” His single most important work is “Las Meninas” which is a painting of Velazquez himself whilst he is painting the Infanta Margarita and her two ladies-in-waiting.
Francisco Goya Collection
Francisco Goya also has a strong presence in the the Prado’s galleries and you can find his work off of the main gallery in room 32. This 18th century artist had three distinct periods of art, those being his court painter period, his political period and his dark period and all three are amply represented in this gallery. Be sure to find his celebrated “Maja Desnuda” and “Maja Vestida” (clothed and naked belles) as well as his masterpieces, “Dos de Mayo” and “Tres de Mayo” which depict reprisals against Napoleonic troops in Madrid in 1808.
For information on temporary collections you should visit the Prado Museum Official Website.
Top 10 Most Famous Paintings in the Prado Museum
“Las Meninas” – Diego Velázquez (1656)
As you enter the Prado, prepare to be mesmerized by Diego Velázquez’s magnum opus, “Las Meninas.” This enigmatic masterpiece, considered one of the most important paintings in Western art history, captures a snapshot of the Spanish court in the 17th century. The complexity of the composition, the interplay of light and shadow, and the artist’s skillful rendering of each figure make “Las Meninas” a timeless marvel.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” – Hieronymus Bosch (1503–1515)
Venture into the fantastical realm of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a triptych that ignites the imagination. Unveiling a surreal journey through paradise, earthly pleasures, and hell, this painting offers a captivating allegory of human desires, temptation, and consequences. Delve into the intricate details and symbolic imagery, and let your mind wander through the artist’s unique vision.
“The Third of May 1808” – Francisco Goya (1814)
Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” stands as a powerful testament to the horrors of war and the resilience of the human spirit. Depicting the execution of Spanish civilians by French soldiers during the Peninsular War, this emotionally charged painting evokes a profound sense of tragedy, empathy, and the fight for justice. Goya’s masterful use of light and shadow accentuates the stark contrast between oppressors and the oppressed, leaving an indelible mark on viewers.
“The Annunciation” – Fra Angelico (1450)
Step into the sacred realm of Renaissance art with Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation.” This exquisite piece exemplifies the artist’s divine skill in capturing heavenly beauty and serenity. The ethereal figures of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, bathed in soft light, invite contemplation and reflection on the miraculous event they represent.
“Saturn Devouring His Son” – Francisco Goya (1819–1823)
Prepare to confront the macabre and the grotesque in Francisco Goya’s haunting depiction of “Saturn Devouring His Son.” This nightmarish painting, part of Goya’s private collection, explores the darkest recesses of the human psyche. With visceral brushstrokes and a visceral intensity, Goya presents the mythological tale of Saturn consuming his own offspring, serving as a chilling reflection on themes of power, mortality, and the consequences of hubris.
“The Descent from the Cross” – Rogier van der Weyden (c.1435)
Marvel at the profound emotional depth and meticulous craftsmanship of Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross.” This iconic representation of the crucifixion captures the grief, piety, and humanity of the moment. The artist’s attention to detail and the nuanced expressions of the figures immerse viewers in a shared experience of sorrow and empathy.
“The Triumph of Bacchus” – Diego Velázquez (1626–28)
Delve into the world of mythology and revelry through Diego Velázquez’s “The Triumph of Bacchus.” This exuberant painting portrays the Roman god of wine surrounded by a lively group of revelers. Velázquez’s mastery of colour, texture, and composition brings forth a sense of merriment and indulgence, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in the festive atmosphere of this mythological celebration.
“The Immaculate Conception” – Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1660-65)
Behold the divine grace and ethereal beauty captured in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “The Immaculate Conception.” This iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by cherubs and bathed in celestial light, exemplifies the Baroque period’s emphasis on religious fervour and spiritual devotion. Murillo’s soft brushwork and delicate rendering of the figures create a sense of reverence and serenity, inspiring contemplation and awe.
“The Forge of Vulcan” – Diego Velázquez (1630)
Witness the extraordinary technical skill and visual storytelling in Diego Velázquez’s “The Forge of Vulcan.” This painting depicts the Greek god of fire at work, surrounded by his assistants in a bustling forge. Velázquez’s ability to capture the play of light and shadow on various textures, combined with his meticulous attention to detail, transports viewers to the heart of this mythological scene.
“The Parasol” – Francisco de Goya (1777)
Admire the elegance and charm of Francisco de Goya’s “The Parasol.” This Rococo masterpiece portrays a young woman accompanied by a gallant suitor, sheltering from the sun beneath a parasol. Goya’s delicate brushwork, vibrant color palette, and depiction of leisure epitomize the spirit of the Enlightenment era. This painting serves as a window into the world of 18th-century aristocracy, offering a glimpse of leisurely pursuits and social dynamics of the time.
“The Cardinal” – Raphael (1510)
Marvel at the Renaissance virtuosity of Raphael’s “The Cardinal,” a portrait that epitomizes the grace and dignity of the era. This exquisite representation of a high-ranking church official showcases Raphael’s mastery of portraiture, capturing the sitter’s commanding presence and intellectual depth. The interplay of light and shadow, intricate details, and the rich symbolism embedded within the composition highlight the artist’s technical prowess and his ability to capture the essence of his subjects.
How to Visit the Prado Museum
A Prado Museum guided tour is the ideal way to gain an insight into the fascinating evolution of art over several centuries. Some of the Prado’s most celebrated exhibits are works by Goya, Velazquez and El Greco but you’ll also find the great works of Rubens and Titian.
Seeing all the major works of the Prado in one visit is impossible so it may be worthwhile considering which area of its art is of most interest to you. You could concentrate on a tour of the works of Goya and Velazquez or extend this to include the works of other great Spanish painters such as Ribera and Murillo.
Alternatively you may prefer to take a tour of art’s evolution through the Flemish Paintings of the 15th century, the work of the 16th century School of Venice, the Spanish Baroque period of the 17th century and the Goya era of the 18th century. Here you’ll discover the major works of Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio as well as the Spanish greats.